Hospitalists stretch into new roles on COVID-19 front lines


Enough work in hospital medicine

Hospitalists had not been deployed to care for ICU patients at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) in Boston, a major hot spot for COVID-19, said Joseph Ming Wah Li, MD, SFHM, director of the hospital medicine program at BIDMC, when he spoke to The Hospitalist in mid-May. That’s because there were plenty of hospital medicine assignments to keep them busy. Dr. Li leads a service of 120 hospitalists practicing at four hospitals.

“As we speak today, we have 300 patients with COVID, with 70 or 80 of them in our ICU. I’m taking care of 17 patients today, 15 of them COVID-positive, and the other two placed in a former radiology holding suite adapted for COVID-negative patients. Our postanesthesia care unit is now an ICU filled with COVID patients,” he said.

“Half of my day is seeing patients and the other half I’m on Zoom calls. I’m also one of the resource allocation officers for BIDMC,” Dr. Li said. He helped to create a standard of care for the hospital, addressing what to do if there weren’t enough ICU beds or ventilators. “We’ve never actualized it and probably won’t, but it was important to go through this exercise, with a lot of discussion up front.”

Dr. Haki Laho

Dr. Haki Laho

Haki Laho, MD, an orthopedic hospitalist at New England Baptist Hospital (NEBH), also in Boston, has been redeployed to care for a different population of patients as his system tries to bunch patients. “All of a sudden – within hours and days – at the beginning of the pandemic and based on the recommendations, our whole system decided to stop all elective procedures and devote the resources to COVID,” he said.

NEBH is Beth Israel Lahey Health’s 141-bed orthopedic and surgical hospital, and the system has tried to keep the specialty facility COVID-19–free as much as possible, with the COVID-19 patients grouped together at BIDMC. Dr. Laho’s orthopedic hospitalist group, just five doctors, has been managing the influx of medical patients with multiple comorbidities – not COVID-19–infected but still a different kind of patient than they are used to.

“So far, so good. We’re dealing with it,” he said. “But if one of us got sick, the others would have to step up and do more shifts. We are physicians, internal medicine trained, but since my residency I hadn’t had to deal with these kinds of issues on a daily basis, such as setting up IV lines. I feel like I am back in residency mode.”

Convention Center medicine

Dr. Amy Baughman

Dr. Amy Baughman

Another Boston hospitalist, Amy Baughman, MD, who practices at Massachusetts General Hospital, is using her skills in a new setting, serving as a co-medical director at Boston Hope Medical Center, a 1,000-bed field hospital for patients with COVID-19. Open since April 10 and housed in the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, it is a four-way collaboration between the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the City of Boston, Partners HealthCare, and the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program.

Boston Hope is divided into a post-acute care section for recovering COVID-19 patients and a respite section for undomiciled patients with COVID-19 who need a place to safely quarantine. Built for a maximum of 1,000 beds, it is currently using fewer, with 83 patients on the post-acute side and 73 on the respite side as of May 12. A total of 370 and 315, respectively, had been admitted through May 12.

The team had 5 days to put the field hospital together with the help of the Army National Guard. “During that first week I was installing hand sanitizer dispensers and making [personal protective equipment] signs. Everyone here has had to do things like that,” Dr. Baughman said. “We’ve had to be incredibly creative in our staffing, using doctors from primary care and subspecialties including dermatology, radiology, and orthopedics. We had to fast-track trainings on how to use EPIC and to provide post-acute COVID care. How do you simultaneously build a medical facility and lead teams to provide high quality care?”

Dr. Baughman still works hospitalist shifts half-time at Massachusetts General. Her prior experience providing post-acute care in the VA system was helpful in creating the post-acute level of care at Boston Hope.

“My medical director role involves supervising, staffing, and scheduling. My co-medical director, Dr. Kerri Palamara, and I also supervise the clinical care,” she said. “There are a lot of systems issues, like ordering labs or prescriptions, with couriers going back and forth. And we developed clinical pathways, such as for [deep vein thrombosis] prophylaxis or for COVID retesting to determine when it is safe to end a quarantine. We’re just now rolling out virtual specialist consultations,” she noted.

Dr. Amy Baughman in PPE

Dr. Amy Baughman in personal protective equipment

“It has gone incredibly well. So much of it has been about our ability and willingness to work hard, and take feedback and go forward. We don’t have time to harp on things. We have to be very solution oriented. At the same time, honestly, it’s been fun. Every single day is different,” Dr. Baughman said.

“It’s been an opportunity to use my skills in a totally new setting, and at a level of responsibility I haven’t had before, although that’s probably a common theme with COVID-19. I was put on this team because I am a hospitalist,” she said. “I think hospitalists have been the backbone of the response to COVID in this country. It’s been an opportunity for our specialty to shine. We need to embrace the opportunity.”

Balancing expertise and supervision

Mount Sinai Hospital (MSH) in Manhattan is in the New York epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis and has mobilized large numbers of pulmonary critical care and anesthesia physicians to staff up multiple ICUs for COVID-19 patients, said Andrew Dunn, MD, chief of the division of hospital medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Dr. Andrew Dunn

Dr. Andrew Dunn

“My hospitalist group is covering many step-down units, medical wards, and atypical locations, providing advanced oxygen therapies, [bilevel positive airway pressure], high-flow nasal cannulas, and managing some patients on ventilators,” he said.

MSH has teaching services with house staff and nonteaching services. “We combined them into a unified service with house staff dispersed across all of the teams. We drafted a lot of nonhospitalists from different specialties to be attendings, and that has given us a tiered model, with a hospitalist supervising three or four nonhospitalist-led teams. Although the supervising hospitalists carry no patient caseloads of their own, this is primarily a clinical rather than an administrative role.”

At the peak, there were 40 rounding teams at MSH, each with a typical census of 15 patients or more, which meant that 10 supervisory hospitalists were responsible for 300 to 400 patients. “What we learned first was the need to balance the level of expertise. For example, a team may include a postgraduate year 3 resident and a radiology intern,” Dr. Dunn said. As COVID-19 census has started coming down, supervisory hospitalists are returning to direct care attending roles, and some hospitalists have been shared across the Mount Sinai system’s hospitals.

Dr. Dunn’s advice for hospitalists filling a supervisory role like this in a tiered model: Make sure you talk to your team the night before the first day of a scheduling block and try to address as many of their questions as possible. “If you wait until the morning of the shift to connect with them, anxiety will be high. But after going through a couple of scheduling cycles, we find that things are getting better. I think we’ve paid a lot of attention to the risks of burnout by our physicians. We’re using a model of 4 days on/4 off.”

Another variation on these themes is Joshua Shatzkes, MD, assistant professor of medicine and cardiology at Mount Sinai, who practices outpatient cardiology at MSH and in several off-site offices in Brooklyn. He saw early on that COVID-19 would have a huge effect on his practice, so he volunteered to help out with inpatient care. “I made it known to my chief that I was available, and I was deployed in the first week, after a weekend of cramming webinars and lectures on critical care and pulling out critical concepts that I already knew.”

Dr. Joshue Shatzkes

Dr. Joshua Shatzkes

Dr. Shatzkes said his career path led him into outpatient cardiology 11 years ago, where he was quickly too busy to see his patients when they went into the hospital, even though he missed hospital medicine. Working as a temporary hospitalist with the arrival of COVID-19, he has been invigorated and mobilized by the experience and reminded of why he went to medical school in the first place. “Each day’s shift went quickly but felt long. At the end of the day, I was tired but not exhausted. When I walked out of a patient’s room, they could tell, ‘This is a doctor who cared for me,’ ” he said.

After Dr. Shatzkes volunteered, he got the call from his division chief. “I was officially deployed for a 4-day shift at Mount Sinai and then as a backup.” On his first morning as an inpatient doctor, he was still getting oriented when calls started coming from the nurses. “I had five patients struggling to breathe. Their degree of hypoxia was remarkable. I kept them out of the ICU, at least for that day.”

Since then, he has continued to follow some of those patients in the hospital, along with some from his outpatient practice who were hospitalized, and others referred by colleagues, while remaining available to his outpatients through telemedicine. When this is all over, Dr. Shatzkes said, he would love to find a way to incorporate a hospital practice in his job – depending on the realities of New York traffic.

“Joshua is not a hospitalist, but he went on service and felt so fulfilled and rewarded, he asked me if he could stay on service,” Dr. Dunn said. “I also got an email from the nurse manager on the unit. They want him back.”


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